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A magical adventure with reality

vspaeth's picture

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the genre of magic realism as a “literary style in which realistic techniques such as naturalistic detail, narrative, etc., are similarly combined with surreal or dreamlike elements (”  This is clearly not a genre we looked at in class, and yet it is not all that different from other genres we have studied.  For example, the OED defines science fiction as “imaginative fiction based on postulated scientific discoveries or spectacular environmental changes, freq. set in the future or on other planets and involving space or time travel (”  If magic realism is the combination of realistic and surreal elements and science fiction of fictional and scientific elements it is not unfounded to say that these two genres are cut of the same cloth. 

I was introduced to this genre this semester in my Introducción al análisis literario (Introduction to literary analysis) class; first by reading a short story “La luz es como el agua (The light is like the water or Light is like Water)” by Gabriel García Márquez, and more recently by reading the novel Como agua para chocolate (Like water for chocolate) by Laura Esquivel.  At the introduction to both stories my professor mentioned, in passing, that they were examples of magical realism and then in the same breath reminded us to not think of that when writing up our analyses.  It was not until sitting and talking with Anne that I realized how weird of a statement that was.  Why would we not want to look at the genre in the analysis of these stories?  I can imagine that he was afraid that we would look at some of the strange elements that make up magical realism and write them off as nothing more than elements of a genre.  It is like he was afraid that we would not look into the meanings that these elements represent.  However, I think there is a reason that these authors represented these stories within genres of magical realism.  Just like how science fiction uses fiction to represent scientific elements, these examples of magical realism use the surreal, dream-like elements to represent the complexity of human emotions.

“La luz es como el agua” or Light like Water is a short story in the collection Doce cuentos peregrinos or Strange Pilgrims.  It is about a family from Columbia that is living in Madrid.  The two children of the family listen to their parents talk about their homeland and eventually ask for a small boat, so that when they return to Columbia they can go rowing on the river.  While the parents are out the children smash open a light bulb and light starts pouring out of it like water (hence the title).  The children explore this light-water in their boat and later with scuba gear they get from their parents.  In the end, however, the light fills the apartment to the point where it is pouring out of the windows and onto the street.  The children are still inside.  They have drowned.

The element of magical realism in this story is primarily the light that behaves as water.  This light is a physical representation of the nostalgia that the children feel for the homeland that they do not and cannot remember.  The defining feature of that unknown land is the water that they would be able to sail and explore under the guidance of their parents had they not been living in Madrid.  It represents the children’s desire to explore and learn about a land that they are connected to but kept from.  It is their unfamiliarity with their homeland, and by extension the light, that overwhelms them and manifests in their deaths. 

Márquez could have easily written a story where two children missed their homeland; however, using the elements of magical realism he has created this depth to their emotions that I do not know if he could capture otherwise.  Their emotions become something tangible.  We are captivated by their past because we are focused on this golden light-water and we are devastated by their despair when we realize they have drowned.  The elements of magical realism are what allow the reader to really visualize the depth of feeling these children experience.

Como agua para chocolate or Like Water for Chocolate is a novel about a young woman, Tita, who is unable to marry her love, Pedro, because family tradition states that she is supposed to take care of her mother up until her mother’s death.  In order to stay close to her, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura.  With this backdrop, the author uses elements of magical realism to help express the complexity of the human emotions and conditions found within the house.  Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes of magical realism in the book occurs in the chapter titles Quail in Rose Petal Sauce.  I have included a link to the scene in the movie to help illustrate the magical realism.  In this chapter of the novel, Pedro gives Tita roses to celebrate her anniversary of being the ranch’s chief.  Her mother, seeing the meaning behind this exchange, orders Tita to throw out the roses.  However, before she does she hears the voice of her dead mentor, Nacha, reminding her of a recipe that she can use the roses in.

Tita hearing the voice of her dead mentor is one element of magical realism that occurs throughout the novel.  I believe it expresses Tita’s desire to be living back when her mentor was alive, before Pedro married her sister.  The voice of her mentor appears quite often in other scenes that are similar to the scene I linked to.  To go back to the scene above; the magical realism exists in the fact that Tita is able to transfer her love and desire for Pedro through her cooking.  The clip shows the family around the table eating the meal that Tita has prepared.  They are all visibly affected by the emotions that are living within the food.   As a result, the writer (or director in the case of the clip) has created a visual representation of the emotions Tita is feeling.  Instead of just describing her intense emotions the reader and viewer are able to see these emotions expressed through the reactions of everyone eating the dish.  The scene goes on to have Gertrudis, the sister most affected by the dish, running into the arms of a man and leaving the ranch to go explore her sexuality.  Having such drastic events happening really highlights the strength and intensity of her emotions.

We are also able to learn more about Tita as a person through the elements of magical realism.  After the birth of Rosaura and Pedro’s first child, Rosaura is unable to nurse the child.  Tita, who was also not nursed as a baby, tries to recreate the same teas and foods she was fed as an infant with little success.  Surprisingly Tita is able to produce milk to feed her nephew even though at this point she is still a virgin and has never been pregnant.  This unrealistic turn of events is a manifestation of Tita’s desire to nurture those she cares about.  Her inability to nurture her nephew is so upsetting to her that she begins to create nourishment with her body that should not be possible.  

At the end of the novel there is another key scene of magical realism.  Years have passed, Rosaura has died and her daughter is getting married.  Pedro and Tita are excited for the bride and also because they are finally able to be together without fear of upsetting Tita’s family.  After everyone leaves Tita and Pedro are left alone and they make love for the first time without worrying about being caught.  Tita sees a gate of light open up in front of her but refuses to go down and it returns to the real world where she realizes that Pedro had gone into the light and died.  The explanation for why this happened is basically that as humans we have an internal flame that burns and sometimes it burns so brightly that it uses all of the fuel at once.  When this occurs the gate into the spirit world opens and if you enter it, well you die.  Tita realizes that this is what happened to Pedro and she wants desperately to join him.  So, she begins eating matches while remembering all of the moments of passion between her and Pedro in their lives.  Finally the gate opens for her too and she meets Pedro in this other world.  When they touch, the ranch catches fire and burns to the ground, leaving nothing but ashes when Pedro’s daughter and new husband return from their honeymoon.

This scene is a culmination of everything that Tita and Pedro are.  In other words, the intense burning of the internal flame that leads to their deaths is an expression of the love and passion they hold inside themselves.  The actual flames that jump from their meeting in the other world and burn down the ranch where they lived are a physical representation of the love and passion that was greater than could be expressed with just words.  We literally see the flames of their passion that destroy not only them but the home they shared for many years. 

Magical realism is like many of the genres we have recently looked at in class where there is a merging of reality and fiction.  How science fiction uses fiction to represent science, magical realism uses magical surreal elements to represent some real aspect.  In the two examples I have been exposed to, these real aspects are the complexities of human emotions, personalities, and relationships.  The realism, for me, refers to the reality of emotional life that we all face.  Looking at these two stories again with their genres in mind has given me insight into the depth of emotion that these authors are expressing.    

Works Cited

Esquivel, Laura. Como agua para chocolate. Barcelona: Grupo Editorial Random House

            Mondadori, 1990. Print.

"magic realism, n.". OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 18 April 2012


Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Doce cuentos peregrinos. 6th ed. Barcelona: Grupo Editorial Random

            House Mondadori, 1998. 187-90. Print.

"ˈscience ˈfiction, n.". OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 19 April 2012



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Anne Dalke's picture

Magical thinking?

It tickles me that you're playing with this interesting juxtaposition between our class on genres, and the prohibition against talking about one particular genre in your Spanish literary analysis class. And of course it tickles me even more that you've now violated that prohibition! I find that it leads to a productive analysis....

I agree that magical realism resembles science fiction in bridging the material world and something beyond it--whether that be an imagined future (as in the case of science fiction) or the as-hard-to understand internal life (as in magical realism).

I'm struck that both titles you discuss are similes: "light like water" and "like water for chocolate," and that both the stories end in death--the first by drowning, the second by fire.  The light in the first story, you say, "is a physical representation of nostalgia"; the flames in the second story, likewise, "are a physical representation of love and passion."

So now I'm thinking of similes themselves as expressions of "magical thinking": imagining something inchoate as something concrete, something it is "really" not, representing it as "like" something else.  The "reality" represented in these magical comparisons to light and fire, you say, is that of "the complexities of human emotions, personalities, and relationships"; the realism of these stories "refers to the reality of emotional life that we all face." And that reference is achieved by drawing--as science fiction draws--on surreal, dream-like elements.